Peer Relationships

As children become adolescents, they usually begin spending more time with their peers and less time with their families, and these peer interactions are increasingly unsupervised by adults. Children’s notions of friendship often focus on shared activities, whereas adolescents’ notions of friendship increasingly focus on intimate exchanges of thoughts and feelings.

During adolescence, peer groups evolve from primarily single-sex to mixed-sex. Adolescents within a peer group tend to be similar to one another in behavior and attitudes, which has been explained as being a function of homophily (adolescents who are similar to one another choose to spend time together in a “birds of a feather flock together” way) and influence (adolescents who spend time together shape each other’s behavior and attitudes).

Figure 11.2.1.Reciprocal influences on friend selection and personal characteristics.

Peer pressure is usually depicted as peers pushing a teenager to do something that adults disapprove of, such as breaking laws or using drugs. One of the most widely studied aspects of adolescent peer influence is known as deviant peer contagion (Dishion & Tipsord, 2011). This influence is the process by which peers reinforce problem behavior by laughing or showing other signs of approval that then increase the likelihood of future problem behavior. Although deviant peer contagion is more extreme, regular peer pressure is not always harmful. Peers can serve both positive and negative functions during adolescence. Negative peer pressure can lead adolescents to make riskier decisions or engage in more problematic behavior than they would alone or in the presence of their family. For example, adolescents are much more likely to drink alcohol, use drugs, and commit crimes when they are with their friends than when they are alone or with their family. However, peers also serve as an essential source of social support and companionship during adolescence, and adolescents with positive peer relationships are happier and better adjusted than those who are socially isolated or who have conflictual peer relationships.

Crowds are an emerging level of peer relationships in adolescence. In contrast to friendships (which are reciprocal dyadic relationships) and cliques (which refer to groups of individuals who interact frequently), crowds are characterized more by shared reputations or images than actual interactions (Brown & Larson, 2009)These crowds reflect different prototypic identities (such as jocks or brains) and are often linked with adolescents’ social status and peers’ perceptions of their values or behaviors. Eventually, these crowds and cliques become less critical to teens as they place more value on close friendships and romantic relationships.


Crowds are large groups of adolescents socially connected by a shared image and reputation (Brown, 2004), especially within the setting of a single school. A single person can belong to more than one crowd if their image matches the crowds’ criteria (Brown, 2004; Mory, 1994). Because membership in a crowd depends on peers' perceptions, crowds in any given peer group will correspond to the local preconceived "types" of adolescents. Specific stereotypes vary from place to place, but many remain consistent. They are based on peer status, socioeconomic status, residential area, activities, social characteristics, or a combination of attributes (jocks, nerds, populars, and druggies are among the most commonly observed) (Brown, 2004; Mory, 1994; Arnett, 2002). Crowds are very different from cliques: while cliques are relatively small, close-knit groups based on frequent interaction and collectively determined membership, members of a crowd may not even know each other. Crowd membership reflects external assessments and expectations, providing a social context for identity exploration and self-definition as adolescents internalize or reject their crowd identities.

Because crowd membership is initially outwardly imposed, an adolescent's peers can classify them as belonging to a crowd that they do not consider themselves a member. Members of some crowds are more aware of and comfortable with their crowd designation than others; members of stigmatized or low-status groups, in particular, may resist or deny their undesirable categorization (Brown et al., 1992). Usually, however, adolescents embrace their crowd affiliation, using it to define themselves and advertise where they fit in their peer group's social structure (Newman & Newman, 2001; Brown et al., 1990).

Crowds and Identity Development

Crowds serve an essential purpose in adolescent identity development, shaping individual values, behavior, and personal and peer expectations. "[One's group] is often tantamount to one's own provisional identity” (Brown et al., 1994); the individual defines themself by the crowd to which they see themself belonging. Different crowds expose the individual to different norms. These norms encourage adolescents to interact with some people while avoiding others and reward certain behaviors while discouraging others, a process of normative social influence (Brown et al., 1990; Brown et al., 1994; Brown et al., 1995; Brown & Larson, 2009). For example, a member of a "preppy" crowd might be rewarded for dressing in a fashion for which a member of an "emo" crowd would be teased, and vice versa.

Crowd effects on norms of interaction:

  • Norms affect how the individual interacts with others. Members of high-status (preppie, popular) groups often interact with many people, but most of these relationships are superficial and instrumental; interpersonal connections are used to establish and maintain social status (Eder, 1985; Lesko, 1988). By contrast, members of lower-caste groups (e.g., dorks, druggies) generally have fewer friends, mostly from within the crowd; however, these relationships are typically marked by greater loyalty, stability, and honesty (Lesko, 1988).
  • Norms affect with whom the individual interacts. Crowds steer the individual toward certain people, attitudes, and behaviors. There are also effects of peer perception and expectations when individuals attempt to interact across crowds. In essence, one may be interested in a cross-crowd friendship, but whether or not the target reciprocates depends on their crowd's norms as well. The adolescent's social options for friendship and romance are limited by their crowd and by other crowds (Brown et al., 1994).

Often crowds reinforce the behaviors that initially caused an individual to be labeled part of that crowd, which can positively or negatively influence the individual (toward academic achievement or drug use, for example). These pressures are often linked to the stereotypes members of crowds hold about themselves and members of other crowds: unity by the denigration of the outgroup (Brown et al., 1994).

Racial Crowds and Sub-Crowds

Adolescents' perception of crowd differences may depend on how closely related the adolescent observer is to a particular crowd. The primary, recurring crowd divisions (jocks, geeks, partiers) have been most often studied in predominantly white high schools, but they also exist for minority students. In multiracial schools, students seem to divide along ethnic lines first, then into these archetypical crowds within their ethnicity. However, one ethnic group may not notice the further divisions in other ethnic groups after the first, race-based split (Brown & Mounts, 1989). For instance, black students see themselves as divided into jocks, geeks, emos, stoners, popular kids, and so on, but white students may see them as just one crowd defined solely by ethnicity, "the black kids." Sometimes crowd membership transcends race, however, and adolescents are classified as "jocks" or "geeks" regardless of race (Horvat & Lewis, 2003; Tyson et al., 2005). This classification seems to vary and depend heavily on the context of the individual school.

Stereotypes, Stigma, and Cross-Crowd Friendships

While crowds are structured around prototypical caricatures of their members, real adolescents rarely match these extremes. Furthermore, not all adolescents agree on the characteristics typical of a stereotype (Brown et al., 1994). In other words, a regular manifestation of just a few central characteristics of a crowd is a sufficient basis for classification as a member of that crowd. Thus, not all "jocks" neglect their schoolwork, though that is part of the typical jock stereotype, and a person interested in fashion could still be considered a "geek."

Often a crowd is stigmatized by one or more other crowds. This stigmatization can affect adolescents' willingness to associate with members of that crowd, or even other crowds similar to it. For example, people may avoid being seen as a "brain," a middle-status crowd, because of the similarity between brains and "nerds," a lower-status crowd (Brown et al., 1990).

Shared interests form the basis of many friendships, so often adolescents are drawn to members of their own crowds, especially if their crowd is defined by activities rather than more superficial characteristics such as race or socioeconomic status. However, interests can be shared across crowd divisions. Accordingly, while an adolescent's closest friends are almost always part of the same clique (i.e., they interact frequently within the same small friend group), they are not always part of the same crowd, especially if multiple crowds have similar lifestyles (Brown et al., 1994).


Further emphasizing the flexible nature of crowd membership, some adolescents are not stably linked to one specific crowd—some individuals are associated with multiple crowds, while others are not stably linked to any crowds and "float" among several. These appear more closely attached to individuals outside the peer group (family, dropout friends, friends from a non-school organization, etc.). Others may consciously work to change crowd affiliations to express different interests or achieve a change in social status. The crowd with which an adolescent desires to be identified is far less stable than the personal attributes by which the adolescent is likely to be categorized by peers. Accordingly, adolescents who change crowd membership (a process known as "crowd-hopping") tend to have lower self-esteem, perhaps because they have not yet found an environment and peer group that supports them. They likely continue changing crowd membership until they find a fulfilling niche (Brown et al., 1992).

The Rise of Crowds

Crowds first emerge in middle or junior high school, when children transition from stable, self-contained classroom peer groups into larger schools, where they interact with a more diverse body of peers with less adult guidance. Crowds emerge to group students by caricature and structure interactions between students of each type (Brown et al., 1994). Early crowds are often based on social status, especially among girls, with a small group of well-known children being "popular" and the rest "unpopular." To maintain their status, popular girls will avoid the overtures of less-popular children, which actually makes them disliked (Eder, 1985). Many children stop attempting to gain entry into the popular crowd and make friends with other children instead, giving rise to new crowds (Brown et al., 1994).

The stereotypes on which crowd definitions are based change over time as adolescents shift from grouping people by abstract characteristics rather than activities ("geeks" rather than "the kids who read a lot"). With age, adolescents become more conscious of crowd divisions and the social hierarchy (Brown, 2004). Distinctions between crowds also become more nuanced, developing from simple popular/unpopular dichotomies to less hierarchical structures in which there are more than two levels of social acceptability, often with several crowds at each level (Kinney, 1993; Horn, 2003). As seen in cross-crowd friendships, some crowds interact with each other more readily than others. This transition to a more fluid social structure allows adolescents to change their status over time by changing crowds, remaining in a crowd that undergoes a change in status, or gaining the confidence and perspective to reject the assumptions of the social hierarchy (Brown et al., 1994; Kinney, 1993). Willingness to do so reflects a growing sense of personal identity distinct from crowd membership.

The Decline of Crowds

Adolescents’ attitudes toward crowds change over time—while ninth-graders are willing to discriminate against members of other crowds, twelfth-graders are less likely to do so (Horn, 2003). Adolescents also develop more multifaceted self-concepts and reject crowd labels as simplistic attempts to describe an entire personality (Brown et al., 1994). Across the high school years, crowd significance as a basis for affiliation wanes (Horn, 2003), as does the influence of crowds on an individual's behavior (Brown, 2004). In fact, some studies indicate the importance of crowds peaks at age 12 or 13 (Brown et al., 1986). By the end of high school, adolescents often feel constrained by impersonal, crowd-derived identities (Larkin, 1979). This constraint, combined with the splintering off of romantic couples from the rest of the crowd, may account for the decline of crowd significance over time(Kuttler & La Greca, 2004).


clique is a group of individuals who interact with one another and share similar interests. Interacting with cliques is part of normative social development regardless of gender, ethnicity, or popularity. Although cliques are most commonly studied during adolescence and middle childhood development, they exist in all age groups. They are often bound together by shared social characteristics such as ethnicity and socioeconomic status (Labrum, 2016).

Typically, people in a clique will not have a completely open friend group and can, therefore, "ban" members if they do something considered unacceptable, such as talking to someone disliked. Some cliques tend to isolate themselves as a group and view themselves as superior to others, which can be demonstrated through bullying and other antisocial behaviors.

One person may be part of multiple cliques, each forming and functioning independently from one another. Cliques are relevant in society due to the social influence or peer pressure that results from the interactions with individuals who share a common characteristic. The outcomes associated with clique formations may be endless, with varying degrees of influence (Miller, 1958). So, a formal clique, such as a professional organization, would have a different kind of influence as compared to a social clique consisting of close friends.

A clique can also involve a high degree of social commitment to a specific group. A stronger level of commitment results in an individual having a reduced amount of interaction with other social groups. Cliquish behavior often involves repetition with regard to activities, vernacular, preferences, and manner, which can result in conflict with other cliques, creating "outsiders." Individuals can also experience social isolation within their clique if their values and/or behavior begin to differ from the rest of the group.

Every clique has some form of organization that makes up the network of social interaction (Peay, 1974). Informal clique networks are groups that do not have a legitimate organizational structure in which they can be established and dissolved in a shorter period. An informal clique may consist of a person's friend group or co-workers, while it may also identify other, more informal groups, such as criminal gangs (Krackhardt, 1988). On the other hand, a formal clique is a group with a socially accepted organization that is hierarchical in structure. A formal clique is composed of members who have identifiable roles and interactions with one another and is found in the structure of numerous professional organizations, businesses, and even family structure. Culture is a very influential factor in the organization of clique structures because the boundaries established through differences in cultural aspects are persistent, even when the membership varies from time to time. For example, the differences in language, beliefs, traditions, etc. have always created a distinct separation or boundary between groups of people even though the members of that particular group are continually changing (Barth, 1998).

Development of Cliques

The formation and deformation of clique structures do not end with adolescence, even though the number of interactions with clique groups decreases, and the type of groups may change. As individuals become adults, their social interpretations alter, and the formation of their cliques originates from their immediate environment, rather than from common social characteristics (Carstensen, 2016). A clique should not be confused with a crowd because the smaller size and specific boundaries of a group are what causes the group formation to be considered a clique. A clique can develop in several different ways and within environments that consist of individuals who interact regularly. The structural cohesion of the clique is the constant face-to-face interaction between members that can either create or dissolve the group, depending upon the level of interaction. If face-to-face interaction is regularly established, then cohesion between individuals will form. However, if the face-to-face interaction depreciates, then the cohesive social bond between said individuals will eventually dissolve (Friedkin, 1984).

Social impact of Cliques

A clique may inhibit external social influence by impacting the emotions, opinions, or behaviors of group members (Hochschild, 1979). There are many ways in which the perception of information between members in a clique can influence other members on a greater level than if they had received the same information from a different source. For example, receiving information from a close friend or family member is interpreted and responded to differently compared to receiving the same information from someone who is not within the clique structure. The satisfaction, interaction, and closeness between the clique groups that we involve ourselves in develops and changes throughout the years. Nevertheless, there is always a constant morphing of both the individual and the group as time goes on.

Homosociality to Hetersociality

Homosociality is the relationship between people of the same-sex, not romantic in nature. In children and young adolescence, more friendships are with peers of the same sex. As adolescents mature, they become open to heterosociality, having relationships with people of the opposite sex, and bisociality, having relationships with same- and opposite-sex peers.

This process tends to occur in stages, as children transition from almost exclusive homosociality to heterosociality and eventually to romantic relationships. In stage one of this progression, cliques are same-sex and segregated from the opposite sex. In the second stage, opposite-sex cliques with similar interests start to associate. During the third stage, sex-segregated cliques break down, often with clique leaders pairing off into close friendships and romantic relationships. The fourth stage is when other clique members also leave the homosocial clique for hetero- and bisocial or romantic relationships. By stage five, cliques are less important to teens, and close or romantic relationships are the priority.

Cliques, Crowds, and Conformity

Video 11.2.1. Adolescence, Cliques, Crowds, Conformity discusses the different peer groups and the influence on youth culture.

Close Friendships

Peer relationships are particularly important for children. They can be supportive but also challenging. Peer rejection may lead to behavioral problems later in life. However, peer relationships can be challenging, as well as supportive (Rubin, Coplan, Chen, Bowker, & McDonald, 2011). Being accepted by other children is an essential source of affirmation and self-esteem. At the same time, peer rejection can foreshadow later behavior problems (especially when children are rejected due to aggressive behavior). With increasing age, children confront the challenges of bullying, peer victimization, and managing conformity pressures. Social comparison with peers is an important means by which children evaluate their skills, knowledge, and personal qualities, but it may cause them to feel that they do not measure up well against others. For example, a boy who is not athletic may feel unworthy of his football-playing peers and revert to shy behavior, isolating himself, and avoiding conversation. Conversely, an athlete who does not “get” Shakespeare may feel embarrassed and avoid reading altogether. Also, with the approach of adolescence, peer relationships become focused on psychological intimacy, involving personal disclosure, vulnerability, and loyalty (or its betrayal)—which significantly influences a child’s outlook on the world. Each of these aspects of peer relationships requires developing very different social and emotional skills than those that emerge in parent-child relationships. They also illustrate the many ways that peer relationships influence the growth of personality and self-concept.

Figure 11.2.2. Functions of friendship. By Florida State College at Jacksonville, licensed under CC-BY 4.0 .

Romantic Relationships

Adolescence is the developmental period during which romantic relationships typically first emerge. Initially, same-sex peer groups that were common during childhood expand into mixed-sex peer groups that are more characteristic of adolescence. Romantic relationships often form in the context of these mixed-sex peer groups (Connolly, Furman, & Konarski, 2000).

Although romantic relationships during adolescence are often short-lived rather than long-term committed partnerships, their importance should not be minimized. Adolescents spend a great deal of time focused on romantic relationships, and their positive and negative emotions are more tied to romantic relationships (or lack thereof) than to friendships, family relationships, or school (Furman & Shaffer, 2003). Romantic relationships contribute to adolescents’ identity formation, changes in family and peer relationships, and adolescents’ emotional and behavioral adjustment.

Furthermore, romantic relationships are centrally connected to adolescents’ emerging sexuality. Parents, policymakers, and researchers have devoted a great deal of attention to adolescents’ sexuality, in large part because of concerns related to sexual intercourse, contraception, and preventing teen pregnancies. However, sexuality involves more than this narrow focus. Romantic relationships are a domain in which adolescents experiment with new behaviors and identities.

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